The office desk I use isn’t exactly modern art. It stems from the 40s or 50s, a hand-me-down that has served well but will never win a beauty contest. It was made during the era of everything veneer, and while it no doubt was unspoiled when new, it has become something less than striking from a visual standpoint. The oak veneer has chipped and taken damage on most outside corners and the drawers require wrestling moves to open them on occasion. Its most redeeming characteristic was summed up by a relative who declared, “It’s not much to look at, but it’s hell for stout.” I took that to mean built like a tank. It has certainly lived up to that.
In spite of the wear and tear, it serves its purpose well and will likely survive beyond any future need on my part. In the meantime, I am content with the beast and do my best to never malign it as long as it functions appropriately. In fact, there is something nice about the never wavering dependability that is generated through its use.
In religion, we are oh so used to seeing the veneer without comprehending much of the unseen framework underneath, including the joinery that holds it all together. As long as it is functional and puts us at some degree of ease, we rarely question what remains mostly unseen and unsaid. In the world of antiques and old desks, provenance (source) is everything. Without understanding origins, the value takes a drastic and sudden dip.
Is our faith representative of the veneer that is in place in many people’s lives? It’s hard to tell when there are so many voices avowing themselves in perfect harmony with God’s word. The veneer looks great, but what will we find underneath? Hardwood? Gumwood? Flake board? It’s helpful to know as it informs us of the origin and reputed durability of what we hear from various sources. What is true and real? What looks and sounds good but fails in actual use? What has been sold as one thing only to be repackaged into something entirely different to assuage the market?
Speaking with absolute conviction as to all things theological is a risky game, one undertaken by tens of thousands of preachers on any given Sunday. If it is that simple and straightforward, that certain and concrete, then what is to be done with equally adamant pastors of a different stripe? Can we not look below the surface and find something edifying about one another’s commitments to faith, even when we might nurture an opposite outlook?
To do so takes swallowing one’s pride on occasion, listening more than talking, practicing graciousness and hospitality. It means finding that place of liminality where our senses are heightened by the possibility of what comes next. Divine counterpoint keeps us aware and poised for something larger than the institutions that we represent. Can we pause long enough to hear and contemplate its meaning in our lives?
The next time you discover your religious veneer scratched or mussed up, split or even missing, rest easy knowing it’s all about what’s underneath. It might not be much to look at, but there’s a better than even chance when put to the test that it, too, will be hell for stout.